CHAPTER 36 – The Oracle of Handwritten Letters, by Paulo M. Morais

©Miguel Palma, Tapar o sol com a peneira / Blocking out the sun with a sieve

Translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty

Edited by Cecile Berbesi

“Any letter could, at heart, be unsettling. Any word held many dimensions inside it. Any name, known or foreign, could point to a path.”

Look back and you will see the future. Sounds like a message from some oracle, Teresa thought. Science is made from existential doubts, from unanswered questions, from seemingly incongruous hypotheses. Enigmas awaiting a solution. Caught between the stupor of finding Maria’s drained body and the frenzy to discover a cure for universal woes, Teresa found herself puzzling about how so much of the future was bound to letters. As if humankind, and scientists themselves, always returned to this need to bequeath written words. Oracles.

The charred edge of the page brought her grandfather’s letter to mind. How could such a gentle word as “grandfather” possess such overwhelming, magnetic power? Teresa and her grandfather had never met in life. At least not in terms of the usual notions of time, those that overlook black holes and quantum leaps. Do lives that never meet in the same space, that never coexist in the same moment, exist for each other?

For family stories to materialize, they need a body; they need some kind of Entity to lend them matter. They need memory – the memory of stories told by the fireside, of elders who hold the keys to the past, of photograph albums. And especially of postcards and letters written on plain or lined paper. Even before the virus and the uprisings, the tsunamis and the earthquakes, the fires and the assaults, all of this had been on the verge of extinction. The only thing left of Teresa’s grandfather was a letter. Would this legacy be enough to create an entire person? Could Teresa’s grandfather be contained in those few lines?

And what if the professor’s letter, with his words “look back,” was supposed to show Teresa that the answer, all the answers, lay in our ancestors? She didn’t know who Calfucura was. Her research had led her to a couple of entries in an online encyclopaedia, one about a Mapuche lonko, the other about a Chilean writer. She read about both and still didn’t feel she knew them. There was something missing – this matter, this link across time… The Mapuche lonko’s handwritten letter… And the Chilean writer’s book.

Teresa fetched her grandfather’s letter and placed it together with the professor’s. She went over to the yellow armchair, reserved solely for times when she picked up a book. Maria would try to distract her when she found Teresa absorbed in reading, her bathrobe fallen open. Teresa, who didn’t understand that every rule has its exception, would always tell her it wasn’t the right time or place. Reading was an activity; it wasn’t doing nothing. In a way, reading was an obligation she subjected herself to, an attempt to understand the indecipherable. This obligation had eventually turned into a habit. Could she say a pleasure? Perhaps it was an exaggeration to compare touching paper pages with touching Maria’s body, or Valéria’s, or Lúcia’s. Perhaps pleasure was a word of multiple dimensions.

Sometimes reading unsettled her. Many times, in fact. That was why, if Teresa sought out the yellow armchair, she also fled from it. This was what she felt as she picked up her grandfather’s letter once more to re-read it in light of the professor’s words; she wanted to flee again, take refuge in a beloved body, or just a desired one. To move ahead, we must continue to ask the right questions.  Teresa wondered, “Is the answer in my grandfather’s letter, or in me?” The past and the future, united in the unstable moment of the present. I should have learned how to meditate, she thought. To feel the breath of the here and now. Or not. The urge to look into the future, to ponder, project and engineer it, overrode the present. They say that’s what it means to have a scientific spirit. But the letter insisted on ripping off her lab coat and dragging her back into the past.

Any letter could, at heart, be unsettling. Any word held many dimensions inside it. Any name, known or foreign, could point to a path. Although they lived in different centuries, could Teresa, her grandfather, the Mapuche lonko and the Chilean writer all be the same person? Could they all be saying the same thing in different ways?

Read the original chapter in Portuguese

Paulo M. Morais (Lisbon, 1972) has a degree in social communications and has worked on magazines and online projects. Following his debut, Revolução no Paraíso (Porto Editora, 2013), he published the novels O Ultimo Poeta (Poética Edições, 2015), Seja Feita a Tua Vontade (Casa das Letras, 2017, shortlisted for the Prémio LeYa) and Pratas Conquistador (Casa das Letras, 2019). He has also written the non-fiction books Uma Parte Errada de Mim (Casa das Letras, 2016) and Voltemos à Escola (Contraponto, 2017). A Aldeia Verde e Vermelha (Tcharan, 2020) is his first children’s book.

Diane Grosklaus Whitty has translated The Collector of Leftover Souls by Eliane Brum, as well as Activist Biology by Regina Horta Duarte and The Sanitation of Brazil by Gilberto Hochman. She is also an over-the-phone medical interpreter, and has been busy lately with calls related to COVID-19. She is currently staying safe at home in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband.

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